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Thompson: Edu-Philanthropy's Unintended Threat to Public Education

Sarah Reckhow's recent TWIE post, Philanthropy Critique Can Obscure Key Differences reviews her research findings on the growing "convergence" of edu-philanthropy and her concerns about the consequences of the coordination of their efforts.

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Among other things, Reckhow worries that "policy priorities of major philanthropists are not well supported by research." But she also warns against critiques of philanthropists that she believes verge on conspiracy theories and makes the important distinction between debating whether big donors are pursuing the wrong policies or whether their secrecy and money "pose threats to democracy."

I welcome a debate over the effectiveness of the "Billionaires Boys Club's" policies.  They've got the money, while their opponents have the preponderance of evidence.

I don't believe that today's philanthropists began with a plan to privatize schools.   But intentions don't matter much.  The "Best and the Brightest" did not have any intention of getting the United States trapped in the Vietnam quagmire. They did not rely on primitive and inaccurate "body count" metrics because they were evil.  The tragedy was primarily a result of hubris, rather than intent. That same sort of elite pridefulness poses a similar threat to public schools.   Intended or not, philanthropy-funded reform efforts pose a threat to democratic governance of schools. - JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.  

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Philanthropy and Vietnam and body counts? Way to keep it classy, JT.

I do not mean that philanthropists are killing people. I am saying that in their hubris they ignored history and used incompetent metrics and got sucked into a tragic debacle.

On the second point-- philanthropy as a threat to democracy-- I'm most concerned about philanthropic giving focused on districts with mayoral or state control. I think districts governed by elected school boards pose a very different institutional situation for philanthropic grant-making--characterized by greater transparency, more open debate, and elections. Of course, elections are quite the hot topic now, thanks to LAUSD. Outside campaign contributions are a separate issue from philanthropy (although some of the same individuals are involved with both activities). I'm less concerned (for now) about outside money in the current LAUSD election posing a threat to democracy (maybe more people will actually vote in a typically low turn out off-year election...), and more concerned that it poses a threat to local pragmatism in the face of national polarization.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.